Return operations

Every year, many people come to the EU, but not everyone is allowed to stay. Non-EU nationals who have exhausted their legal right to stay in the territory of Member States have to return to their country of origin. It also includes those who requested international protection but were not granted one.

The key concept in the return policy is ‘the legal right to stay’ – without it, non-EU citizens cannot stay in the EU/Schengen zone.

Who takes the decision?

Only the administrative or judicial authorities in the EU/Schengen zone countries have the power to issue a return decision based on an individual assessment of each case.

Any person subject to a return decision or other administrative decisions has the right to appeal against them. Consequently, the authorities in the EU/Schengen zone decide on possible appeals against a return decision or the denied asylum requests.

Upon receiving the decision, the person must return to their country of origin, a country of transit, or another non-EU country, to which they voluntarily decide to return and which is open to accept them.

Frontex has no role in these procedures and does not enter into the merits of return decisions issued by national authorities. Only when a return decision is adopted and is legally enforceable (i.e., when the person has had the possibility to use all legal remedies such as appeals and there are no legal obstacles to implement the decision), can Frontex provide operational and technical support to a requesting EU/Schengen country within the different phases of the return process.

Return procedure explained

The return process always begins either with the adoption of a return decision, or a person’s expression of willingness to return to their country of origin, and covers different stages: pre-return, the actual return, and post-return. Each stage entails a number of different activities. 

During the pre-return phase, several key conditions for return have to be fulfilled, in particular identification and proper travel documents. This always requires cooperation from the countries of return and their diplomatic missions in the EU.

The return phase, meaning the travel itself, lasts until the person arrives at the destination and, in case of non-voluntary return, when he or she is successfully handed over to the authorities of the country of return. If the handover is rejected by the authorities, this person is taken back to the EU/Schengen zone.

The Member State which issued the return decision may agree to provide the person returned with post-arrival support, which means immediate help on arrival and for the first few days right after (hotel, registration in the country of return, onward transportation etc.). However, a long-term support, called reintegration assistance, can also be provided to assist people to rebuild a life in the country of return. It can include training, help with setting up a new business, etc. It is always up to the Member State to decide, who can receive what kind of help, how much help and for how long.

The role of Frontex in returns

Frontex can provide operational and technical support to a requesting EU/Schengen country within the different phases of the return process , from pre-return, through the coordination and implementation of the return operation, to post-arrival support.

Frontex’s assistance to Member States in returns may also take form of long-term and ad hoc deployments of standing corps officers with specific return profiles, called Frontex Return Escort and Support Officers. They are deployed in key Member States’ airports and other locations providing assistance on the ground. Their task may be as well to escort non-EU nationals on board of flights in order to ensure safety, security and wellbeing during the whole return operation, including transits.

The agency can only provide support:

  • upon formal request from a Member State, or
  • on its own initiative, but always with the agreement of the Member State(s) concerned;
  • to governmental authorities of EU Member States;
  • in relation to the return of non-EU citizens who do not enjoy the right to stay, legal residence and/or international protection in the territory of an EU Member State.


  • Only the judicial or administrative authorities of the Member States decide who must be returned (by force or voluntarily).
  • The European legislation gives every person subject to a return decision the possibility to appeal against it.
  • Frontex cannot and does not enter into the merits of these decisions of the Member States, and of the definition of voluntary return according to the national legal framework.

Pre-return support

During the pre-return phase, several key conditions for return have to be fulfilled, in particular identification and proper travel documents. This always requires cooperation from the countries of return and their diplomatic missions in the EU.

In the pre-return support to Member States, Frontex may:

  •  help to identify returnees and collect relevant (travel) documentation,
  • assist and advise the national authorities in the process of consular engagement and operational cooperation with non-EU countries,
  • help to enhance Member States’ and non-EU countries’ capacity in return and readmission activities, including capacity building projects,
  • deploy European return liaison officers in non-EU countries,
  • propose good practices and procedures as well as facilitate the exchange of knowledge between return experts,
  • deploy standing corps return specialists with specific areas of expertise, such as identification procedures, acquisition of travel documents with respect to non-EU countries, return IT systems, and return and reintegration counselling.

Support in implementing returns

Frontex can provide:

  • technical assistance to Member States’ voluntary returns,
  • coordination as well as operational and technical support to return operations organised by Member States,

Frontex can also organise its own return operations. Returns supported by Frontex take place primarily by air – on charter and scheduled flights – but the agency may also organise returns by other means of transport, such as by sea or land.

Member States and Frontex together ensure that the fundamental rights of returnees, including the principle of non-refoulement, as well as the proportionate use of force are respected during all supported returns.

Voluntary returns

Voluntary returns are the most humane, effective, and sustainable form of returns. They are the preferred type of return under the EU migration policy. Frontex’s support in this area has been consistently growing since the extension of its mandate in the end of 2019. Voluntary returns are one of the main contributing factors to the overall significant growth in the number of Frontex-supported returns in the recent years.

In 2022, out of the 24 850 people returned with Frontex's support, 40% returned voluntarily.

Return operations by charter flights

In return operation, returnees are accompanied by escort officers, medical staff, translators, fundamental rights monitors, and other support staff from Member States.

Member States may join their return efforts by organizing joint return operations. If a Member State organises an operation to a specific country, they can share seats on their flight with other Member States. Frontex serves as an information hub and coordinator for everyone involved.

Returns by scheduled flights

Frontex may assist Member States by coordinating and financing returns by scheduled (commercial) flights. The agency facilitates the booking and the purchase of flight tickets through a dedicated IT tool, it provides helpdesk support, takes direct contact with air carriers, and may deploy officers to support such returns.

Collecting return operations

Frontex can coordinate collecting return operations, where returnees are picked up from the departure airport by the authorities of their country of destination. The means of transport and escort officers are provided by that non-EU country.

  • All escorts of the non-EU country of return are trained by the agency to comply with EU standards. Their training always includes a fundamental rights component.
  • All collecting return operations happen in the presence of at least one forced-return monitor on board to ensure the respect of fundamental rights as well as at least one Member State representative.

Frontex-organised return operations

While most of the time Frontex coordinates return operations organised by EU countries, the agency may organise returns on its own initiative. In such a case, Frontex takes over certain tasks from Member States, such as setting up the operational procedures and the timeframe, chartering the aircraft, engaging officers from the standing corps and contacting the national authorities of the country of return.